Ebola hasn’t been in the news much lately.
That’s because the number of new cases has plummeted since the height of the epidemic late last year. In fact, the turnaround has been so dramatic that Liberia, once the hardest-hit country, is now on the brink of declaring itself Ebola-free.
But two headlines from Sierra Leone this week caught our attention.
According to reports, a boat with sick fishermen sparked a new outbreak in the capital. Meanwhile, the vice-president of Sierra Leone was under quarantine after his bodyguard died of Ebola.
To get the full scoop, we spoke with Umaru Fofana, a reporter with Reuters who’s based in the capital, Freetown.
What’s the latest with the vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana?
One of his bodyguards had become infected with [and died of] Ebola, so he imposed a 21-day quarantine on himself. It’s the first time that a high-level government official has been in quarantine because of Ebola. But he really had no choice. It was public knowledge [that his bodyguard had Ebola], and I think he would have looked really bad if he hadn’t followed the rules.
The president of Sierra Leone is out of the country [in Europe], so the vice president is in charge. He says he’s working from home, that he’s running the country online.
How exactly does one run a country from a laptop?
It’s difficult because some of the work he has to do requires giving a signature. If he has documents that he needs to sign, how does he sign them? Even if someone were to slip a document under his door, no one can come in contact with the envelope, so I don’t know how all that works.
What happened in this fishing community? How bad was the outbreak there?
The community is called Aberdeen. It’s a slum in the capital [Freetown], by the beach, filled with lots of shanties. One area of the slum actually borders a boundary wall of the most expensive hotel in the city.
From what I understand, a man who was sick or dead with Ebola arrived there on a boat. A few residents were infected, and one of them traveled to the north, and ultimately several dozen people there became infected because of him. At first, there was a sense of panic over the new cases in this fishing slum, because of the set-up [many people packed close together]. But the WHO response was very fast, and the slum itself had very few cases. The area had been quarantined but now that quarantine is about to be lifted.
In late November, Sierra Leone was seeing over 500 new cases of Ebola each week. By late January, that number had plummeted to fewer than 100 hundred a week. Now things are stagnant: approximately 60 to 80 new cases a week for the past month. What’s the mood on the ground?
I think complacency has crept in, to be honest. You don’t see the kind of vigilance that used to exist, where there were buckets [of chlorinated water] all over the place [for hand-washing]. You don’t see that these days, because the sense is that the virus has been defeated.
But in the more recent times there has been a resurgence and there is now some concern with the figures coming in, ebbing and flowing. People are a bit worried again, particularly when they compare themselves with neighboring Liberia [which saw no new cases this past week]. So the idea that Liberia is doing well while we are not has led to some frustration and some amount of hopelessness. But overall, people do feel like the worst is over.